Monday, March 8, 2010

A Good Loss?

In spite of a disappointing loss at the hands of the Serbians that now relegates the U.S. into a World Group Playoff tie in September (for the first time since 2005), there is much to be hopeful about for the Americans. Over the past 12 months it has become clear that John Isner and Sam Querrey are on the rise. With very few Americans even sniffing the top-100 at the moment, there has been considerable pressure on the two tall Americans to "be the guys," and neither appears eager to disappoint.

While Isner and Querrey's collective rise in the ATP rankings hasn't exactly been meteoric, there have been periods of rapid growth followed by plateaus that have left each player with reason to believe that they can become a card carrying member of the ATP's top ten, perhaps even as soon as this fall.

A necessary stop in this maturation process occurred over the weekend in Serbia, and even though the Americans were not up to the daunting task of upending the Serbians on their surface of choice (the red clay that is about as foreign to Americans as a cricket bat), the two got an idea of the kind of inspired effort it is going to take to continue to improve.

Isner, who was ranked outside the top-100 as recently as last June, will be the first to admit that it isn't always going to be easy. In uncharacteristically failing to hold serve while serving for the first set in Fridays first rubber, the 6'9" North Carolinian handed Viktor Troicki a lifeline that he would never relinquish. Ultimately it was the turning point in the tie, and the Americans were left trying to dig themselves out of a deep clay hole for the remainder of the weekend.

"If I win that first set, it changes the complexion of the match...It's not often I get broken trying to serve out a set, but I just didn't make enough first serves," said a disappointed yet determined to never let it happen again Isner.

By letting his chances to win the first match slip away, Isner will undoubtedly regret what transpired. If he's as hungry as he appears to be, he won't blame it on the clay, or on the Serbian's inspired play. He'll point the finger at himself, because truthfully, if there was any chance for the Americans to pull the stunner in Serbia this weekend, it hinged upon Isner backing up his ranking and rising to the occasion against Troicki in a match that he definitely could have won.

We Americans (those of us that had the nerve to be mad) had already forgiven Isner by the time he had sealed their inspiring doubles match, alongside Bob Bryan, in what was perhaps the most thrilling affair of the tie.

Not to be overlooked was the more than impressive clay court tennis that Isner and Querrey played this weekend. Many feared that the tie wouldn't be this close, and the end results were actually quite satisfying given the circumstances. The fact of the matter is that the U.S. is forced to force square pegs into round holes when it comes to playing on clay (another story for another time), and both Isner and Querrey performed quite admirably, particularly in the matches against Djokovic, who is a world-class clay court player, and a big match connoisseur, to say the least.

If there is such a good thing as a good loss, this was the one. Isner got his first taste of Davis Cup, and Querrey got his first win. While the U.S. isn't the world beating squad that it once was, surely this weekend could mark the beginning of something to build on. With the Bryan Brothers still in peak form, Andy Roddick ready to offer his services (and more importantly, his leadership), and Patrick McEnroe's passion and desire to avail Isner and Querrey the resources that they need to improve, the future does indeed look brighter (especially if the U.S. gets a home tie on a fast court).

Taken individually this is a stinging loss for the once mighty American Davis Cup squad. But seen as a first step in a logical progression towards a new and improved version of American tennis, it is a breath of fresh air. The philosophical shift from old blood to new blood was never expected to be made without a few drops being spilled. Now that that's over, the young Americans can learn their valuable lessons and go about the business of fulfilling their collective promise.

Still, it's hard to wrap my head around the idea that there can be such a thing as a good loss. Can there be?

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